Authentic town centers elevate neighborhood spirits

MBH Architects, founded in 1989, has a headquarters in Alameda, Calif., just across the Bay from San Francisco. Its second location is in Newport Beach, Calif., in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. The firm employs nearly 170 professionals that specialize in retail, hospitality, housing and commercial projects. Its retail work alone makes up approximately half the firm's dollar volume in profit.

Gap offered MBH its first retail work when the practice began, helping the firm get its retail feet wet and develop an organization with multi-faceted skills. “In New York, Gap had a project that they gave us right out of the shoe — it was a flagship store at 34th and Broadway,” says John McNulty, AIA and founding principal of MBH. “That really gave us a solid start in our business.”

Today, MBH designs all Gap's Old Navy stores — some 300 across the country. The firm also does work with Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn for Kids, as well as J. Crew, Target and others.

The firm sees a trend toward town center projects designed to meet a variety of needs. “It's retail with commercial, or it's retail with housing above it,” McNulty says. “One part of our practice is devoted toward high-density housing, so we're blending that in as well.”

The move toward greater authenticity in developments is another trend. “Developers are realizing the public's enhanced intellectual ability to digest what they see,” McNulty says. “The expectation across the normal cross-section of shoppers is much higher, and we keep delivering a better product everyday.”

Current retail projects for MBH Architects include the Wax Museum in San Francisco, on the former site of the old wax museum on Fisherman's Wharf. The project's client asked MBH to create a sense of place similar to a train station in Santiago, Chile, designed by Gustav Eiffel. “We tried to pull that together with the scale and texture of buildings in San Francisco along the waterfront,” McNulty says. “We developed a design that has a real integrity about it. It's a modern building, but the hope was to present the city with an authentic, old building that had been there for 100 years.”

The three-story, above-grade building features approximately 100,000 sq. ft. and will include a Rain Forest Cafe and smaller retail tenants.

Another current project, The Town Center at Levis Commons in Perrysburg, Ohio, is a multi-phased, mixed-use center that will combine a traditional townscape setting with lifestyle and retail elements, such as restaurants, cafes and offices. These components will be centered around a town green with streetscapes, sidewalks and courtyards. The developers of the project are striving to make it a draw for continuing development in the area. Initial project phases will include 275,000 sq. ft. of retail, restaurant and state-of-the-art office space.

Key to the project — and to creating any successful town center, MBH posits — is providing a streetscape infrastructure that's conducive to a thriving pedestrian environment.